Apple Alum Builds App to Help Millions in Indian Slums Find Jobs
Migrant workers and their families board buses during a lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus in New Delhi, India. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)

Apple Alum Builds App to Help Millions in Indian Slums Find Jobs

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India’s cities are home to millions of low-skilled workers—drivers, masons, deliverymen, and others—who hail from villages hundreds of miles away. These people crowd into shantytowns and slums, scratching out a living on the margins with virtually no safety net. So when India went into lockdown in March, millions of migrant laborers found themselves out of work, penniless, and far from home. In the following weeks, these people hit the road en masse, often walking alongside highways for days with their children and meager possessions on their shoulders, backs, and heads, returning to their villages. Now, as India starts to reopen, those millions are reluctant to go back to cities until they can be certain there’s work. Nirmit Parikh says he can help.

Parikh, a 32-year-old Apple Inc. alum with an MBA from Stanford, has created Apna, which he envisions as a sort of LinkedIn for non-English-speaking, nonaffluent Indians. When these people move to the cities, they typically find work via small-time employment agencies or on street corners crowded with men and women waiting for someone to hire them for a few hundred rupees a day. With Apna, job seekers enter their name, age, and skills to generate a virtual “business card” that’s passed out to employers in Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, and Pune, with more cities on the way. “A digital business card is a confidence booster for many who’ve only seen their super bosses carry business cards,” Parikh says. “We want to give millions of bottom-of-pyramid workers a career path.”

Apna says 1.25 million people have signed up since its launch in February, and big-name companies such as Amazon.com, online grocer BigBasket, and HDFC Bank, India’s top lender, have hired workers via the app. It’s divided into dozens of sections, from low-skilled jobs such as carpentry, tailoring, and cooking, to higher-level positions in accounting, lab work, call centers, and nursing. The app is available in Hindi and Kannada, so English—a stretch for many poor Indians—isn’t needed. So far, the company has no revenue, but Parikh envisions job seekers paying the equivalent of a few pennies for skills courses or English lessons, and he plans to charge companies for arranging interviews.

Apna (“Ours” in Hindi) faces a growing number of rivals. The Delhi city government set up an online marketplace for job seekers, who can call prospective employers via its app. Bollywood actor Sonu Sood is backing Pravasi Rojgar (Migrant Employment), used by more than 500 companies in construction, health care, logistics, and a dozen other fields to recruit workers from villages. And ad company Lowe Lintas in July introduced Kaam Wapasi (Return to Work) to connect rural candidates with urban jobs. “Migrant workers aren’t ready to return to cities without a sense of clarity and control,” says Prateek Bhardwaj, the ad agency’s chief creative officer.

The idea for Apna grew out of Parikh’s experience hiring a welder a decade ago, when he got hundreds of résumés in response to an ad on a job portal. He invited about 20 people in for interviews, but only five showed up and most of those knew little about welding. “The system was broken,” he says. As he began developing the idea in earnest last year, he took a job as an electrician in a factory in Ahmedabad, 300 miles north of Mumbai, where he chatted with workers on chai breaks and spent evenings talking with people in nearby slums. “I tried to look at it from the candidate’s point of view,” he says. A key takeaway: Low-skilled workers don’t need résumés, an off-putting requirement on many job portals. Last summer he raised $3 million from Lightspeed Venture Partners and Sequoia Capital. “Job startups need to start catering to the deep underbelly of the economy, about 250 million Indians doing nonfarming,” low-skilled labor, says Lightspeed partner Vaibhav Agarwal.

Parikh spent the next six months with five coders, and by December Apna was ready. Shortly after the app went live, the pandemic hit and Parikh sensed that his idea was more relevant than ever. With millions of people out of work, traffic soared far beyond what he’d planned for, so he hired about 20 more coders working nights and weekends to bolster his technology, and he brought on scores of people to sign up companies and help build communities of job seekers. In July, he says, Apna facilitated 800,000 job interviews, and August is on track to double that. “People’s lives are broken,” he says. “We’re helping them put things back together.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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